Some people can visit a cemetery and feel a special bond with loved ones who have passed. Others are terrified at the thought and equate it with the ghoulish night of Halloween, where evil spirits lurk. Then there are others who have turned the page and don’t see any point in visiting loved ones or friends who are no longer with them.
While visiting cemeteries is not something I frequently make a point of doing, when paying my respects to friends or family members I feel I have stepped into a history book of stories and intrigue most books can seldom capture. I feel that certain intimacy in one such cemetery, “Our Lady of the Isle Cemetery,” located on Shelter Island, N.Y. Few places have given me an inner peace than this small cemetery has to offer. Driving up the narrow tree-lined road, you come to an opening in the woods where stories of inventors, political figures, family members, friends, and veterans abound. Many I have known, primarily through my mom and dad, who lie there and are part of that unique history. I have stayed there for hours and relived childhood memories second to none and the people that made it so special. However, when visiting a cemetery of this size, you feel an intimacy or bond with those you have loved, particularly with those who have served.
One of the most memorable walks I’ve taken there has been on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, where small flags adorn the entire cemetery like a carpet of spring flowers, commemorating the service of our fallen or deceased veterans. It is inspiring to see just how many people who have had some connection to this quaint island have sacrificed so much for the freedoms we enjoy today. There are World War I and II veterans, those who fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and even a dear friend of ours whose son was disarming bombs in Afghanistan ahead of his platoon when he stepped on an IED and sacrificed his life to save the 20 members of his team. We all have stories like this of people we know who “gave all” for their country, and then we have others who “gave all” differently.
One of my first interviewees was Punta Gorda’s first female mayor, Marilyn Smith-Mooney. Formally from Long Island, New York, Marilyn lived a life of accomplishments that would have spanned at least two lifetimes. The first half of her life was in the private sector, focused primarily on architecture, interior design, and ownership and management of a commercial construction corporation. The latter half of her life centered around executive management team positions in human resources and corporate development. She was a pilot and an Amelia Earhart award recipient. She was a graduate of the Advanced Institute for Elected Municipal Officials, Leadership Charlotte, and Local Government Leadership Florida. For eight years, Marilyn served as executive director and vice-chair of the Tetrault Family Foundation. This private non-profit provided $30 million in funding and development of the 27-acre Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens, where breathtaking sculptures from artists worldwide are displayed among specimen floral fauna from the area.
She also obtained her Florida Supreme Court certification as a county mediator, which only scratches the surface of this talented woman’s accomplishments and awards. In 2017 Marilyn was honored with the award from the Punta Gorda Rotary for “Service Above Self,” acknowledging her work for so many non-profits and individuals “needing a caring heart.” However, one award Marilyn was most proud of was being the first recipient of the “Distinguished Civilian Award” from the Military Heritage Museum, which she received in August 2021.
As long as I knew Marilyn, she always had a special place in her heart for the military and those who served our country, and she wanted that history preserved for generations to come. She joined the Military Heritage Museum Board and became its president in 2007, holding the position for more than five years. She stayed on as a board member feeling “new blood, energy and ideas” were needed from leadership, but once again was recruited to serve as its president. Today the Military Heritage Museum is one of the most unique and awe-inspiring tributes to those who played such an essential role in preserving our country’s rich history.
Like many small towns throughout our country, there is a special bond and gratitude you feel when seeing someone who has served their country. Punta Gorda has that bond through the Military Heritage Museum, and the Veteran’s Memorial Wall found in Veteran’s Park within the city. With Memorial Day upon us, most associate it with the start of summer and the activities we’ve waited to enjoy all winter; however, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the service those have made to give us the freedom we have today. There is a military saying I came across, “All gave some, some gave all,” and while that may imply those that haven’t fought in wars “gave some,” Marilyn Smith-Mooney is a perfect example of someone who may not have marched off to war, but to me, she “gave all.” Thankfully, I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to thank her for her “service” before she passed shortly after receiving her Distinguished Civilian Award from the Military Heritage Museum.
We send our best wishes to all for a happy, healthy, and memorable Memorial Day. To our Veterans, we thank you for your service.